“There are none so profitable and beneficial to the place where they trade and live, as is the Nation of the Jews.”   
                           —Menasseh ben Israel, Humble Addresses to Oliver Cromwell—1655

Etching by Jan Luyken, Kerk-Zeeden ende Gewoonten die huiden in gebruik zijn onder de Jooden, Leon Modena, Amsterdam: 1683.

In the seventeenth century, following the Age of Exploration and the colonization of the New World, significant and wide-ranging economic changes began to take place within Europe. A seemingly endless supply of gold and silver mined in the Americas was introduced into the coffers of European nations, whose commercial mainstays had long been their feudal and agricultural economies. The rulers of these nations grew to believe that a strong state required the accumulation of bullion accompanied by an aggressive stance toward international trade, maintenance of a strong standing army, and manufacture for export. This shifting dynamic came to embody the new economic system called mercantilism, a system additionally characterized by the notion that the welfare of the state was paramount. The mercantilist age developed as a period of comparative religious open-mindedness primarily because toleration proved more profitable than intolerance.

During the same period, Jews began to be readmitted to residency in parts of Europe from which they had been previously excluded. Sephardim, descendants of Jews expelled from Spain and Portugal and scattered across the globe at the end of the fifteenth century, were instrumental in the foundation of many of these new and renewed Jewish communities. In the century that had passed since the expulsions, many Sephardim had turned to business endeavors and trade to earn their livelihood. The commercial ties and far reaching networks they had established made them a desirable commodity in any society that relied heavily on trade. At the end of the sixteenth century in the Netherlands, an area formerly under the rule of Catholic Spain, Sephardim arrived and took advantage of the new spirit of religious broadmindedness that prevailed in these newly independent Dutch provinces, particularly in Amsterdam.

Scuola Spagnola, Venice, Italy, dedicated 1584 and rebuilt 1635 by Baldassare Longhena.

In England, where Jews had not been officially permitted to live since their expulsion by the King’s decree in 1290 CE, a small group of Sephardic Jews arrived in the mid-seventeenth century and soon took advantage of the brief royal interregnum during the Cromwellian period, establishing a small practicing Jewish community. Though never officially readmitted, the community was tacitly accepted and continued to grow and thrive even after the restoration of the Monarchy.

In Italy, throughout the sixteenth century, princes and governments of the various Italian states competed to attract Sephardic merchants, with their strong ties to the Ottoman Empire.

The New and Old synagogues of Furth, engraving by Johann Alexander Böner, 1705.

In all these places, the ranks of the Sephardim were supplemented throughout the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries by a small yet steady stream of new arrivals direct from the Iberian Peninsula. These were conversos, descendants of those Jews forcibly converted at the time of the expulsions, who had remained in Spain and Portugal, but who lived a binary life, outwardly adhering to the trappings of Christianity while secretly maintaining whatever links they could to their ancestral Judaism.  Frequently referred to in the Iberian Peninsula by the derogatory term marranos (swine), these crypto-Jews were often at risk of being subjected to Inquisitorial proceedings that could result in torture or death. As conditions continued to deteriorate for the conversos, the most stalwart among them escaped the Iberian Peninsula and sought out more hospitable locales. They fled to seek the opportunity to practice their religion openly and to re-establish themselves within the framework of Judaism and the Jewish people.

In Central Europe, the demands of modern state-building also fostered the beginnings of new pragmatic attitudes to Jews by those rulers who sought to further improve the economic status of their states. As a result, in many emerging centralized European states, Jews were recognized as a group that possessed financial skills, capital, and international commercial ties, and their presence was increasingly viewed as beneficial to the state. The divisions of theology that had for so long dominated the discussion concerning the place of the Jews in society seemed less compelling than the multiplication of revenues. This was particularly evident in the German-speaking lands that comprised the heartland of Ashkenazic Jewry. In numerous German principalities, Jews with ready capital and solid business experience began to serve the courts of Dukes and Princes in a variety of essential roles during and after the Thirty Years War, which began in 1618. These “Court Jews” were often responsible for purveying military supplies to the army, minting local currency, and advancing huge sums of money to their respective states’ treasuries. With their financial skills, their readiness to accept risk, and most importantly, their international commercial ties (particularly with Jewish livestock and grain merchants in Poland and Lithuania), they were able to supply services that Christian merchants could not.

Frankfurter Jew and Jewess, etched by Caspar Luyken, Neu-eroffnete Welt Gallaria, Nuremberg, 1703.

For many individual Jews, whether Sephardic merchants or Ashkenazic Court Jews, this was a period of rapid enrichment on a large scale. For the Court Jews especially, the risks undertaken were often justified by huge financial rewards, but failure could result in equally huge losses, and if one’s patron prince suffered reverses, the Court Jew could expect to share in ignominy or ruin. Great wealth brought with it the opportunity for Jews of a certain financial stature to acquire luxurious personal religious articles, many of which survive to the present. These items, whether molded in precious metals or woven of luxurious fabrics, help scholars to define and understand the people who owned them, as both a connection to the importance of Judaism and Jewish ceremony in their lives and as unmistakable evidence of their personal success. They are testimony to the partnership of riches and ritual.

It should be remembered, however, that notwithstanding the broadly increased level of economic participation of numerous Jewish individuals in this period, these Jews were, quite literally, exceptions, and not the rule. The day had not yet arrived when the majority, the “non-exceptional” Jews, would experience the same kind of acceptance that their wealthy and successful coreligionists enjoyed. Throughout Europe, the Ottoman Empire, and even across the ocean in the New World, Jews continued to face widespread instances of discrimination, intolerance, and prejudice. It would only be in the following century that the ideals of the Enlightenment would lay the groundwork for the coming era of Emancipation.

This essay has been excerpted from the catalogue to A Treasured Legacy: The Michael and Judy Steinhardt Judaica Collection, an auction taking place at Sotheby’s New York on 29 April. To view objects from the Age of Mercantilism included in the sale go to lots 61-99.

Next essay: The Jews in the Age of Enlightenment